Quelbe, also known as Scratch Band Music or Quadrille by some, is an indigenous, grass-roots form of folk music which originated in the U.S. Virgin Islands and has spread to other parts of the Caribbean.
A form of oral history, its lyrics are used to immortalize significant
historical events, spread “rude” gossip about one's neighbors, and relay the day to day trials and tribulations of life on a island.
Scratch bands musicians play homemade instruments one can “scratch up.” For example, one man might be blowing with all of his might through a car-muffler pipe, another scratching a hollowed-out gourd with his hair pick, and yet another picking at a banjo made from a sardine can, a piece of wood and strings. Scratch band music has a crudeness to it that is both intoxicating and rhythmic. It speaks to both the beauty and the hardship of the Crucian lifestyle. In 2004 the Virgin Islands legislature passed a bill making Quelbe the official music of the Virgin Islands.
Scratch originated during the time of slavery when the Virgin Islands were under Danish rule. The West Africans who worked on the sugar plantations as slaves brought with them a percussive and rhythm-based musical tradition and rich storytelling practices. The plantation owners, however, outlawed the use of drums by the slaves. Over time, the African descendents turned to the European colonizers' military bands and social music as models for new instrumentation and melodies. Improvising with available materials, all of the slaves' new bands, the predecessors of today's scratch bands, ultimately contained at least one melodic instrument (such as a flute made from cane) and at least one percussive instrument (such as a squash made from a hollow, open-ended gourd).
Though the percussive musical practices brought from Africa changed significantly, the storytelling tradition was never lost. The way in which quelbe lyrics were used to convey historical events is evident in a song entitled LaBega Carousel . By the early 1900s slavery had long since ended on St. Croix and jobs were scarce. The economy had drastically declined and living conditions were poor. The very popular song bears witness to the resulting labor unrest. The song proposes the boycott of a popular carousel owned by a man named LaBega, who said that laborers were not worthy of a pay raise. This song is still quite popular today.
A strong Crucian spirit is apparent in the lyrics:
"I rather walk and drink rum whole night
Before me go ride on LaBega Carousel
You no hear what LaBega say,
“The people no worth more than fifteen cent a day”
I am walking, I am looking, I am begging
Before me go ride on LaBega Carousel".